Gandhigh Jump
August 18, 2008 11:20 AM   Subscribe

After looking at this map, I'm curious as to why South Asian and Middle Eastern countries are vastly underrepresented in the Olympic games. What exactly are the economic, political, religious, or cultural factors that play into this?
posted by Christ, what an asshole to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well, there's no Olympic cricket, so that's big.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:34 AM on August 18, 2008

- Economic: Many of those countries are economically unstable.
- Political: Many of those countries are politically unstable.
- Religious: Many of those countries are religiously unstable.
- Cultural: Many of those countries are culturally unstable.

By contrast compare that region to western countries or countries with a high GDP. Countries aren't going to produce solid athletics when a large portion of their people are worried about where their next meal is coming from, or what ethnic group is being cleansed this week... Duh.
posted by wfrgms at 11:39 AM on August 18, 2008

Considering they dont (or barely) allow women to compete, you just cut off 51% of potential Olympians out of the game.

Also political corruption. I mean, the woman competing in Tae Kwan Do for UAE is the daughter of the Shiek. It seems only the upper-class have western-style rights and western-style opportunities.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:55 AM on August 18, 2008

It's also related to the number of people in those countries playing those particular sports. Iran has won dozens of medals over the years, but only in three sports: wrestling, weightlifting, and (more recently) taekwondo. India has won less than half the number of medals as Iran, but have eight golds in field hockey, and have medals from that sport in 11 of the 22 Olympics they've entered. In the sports they play/are interested in, they do well.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 11:58 AM on August 18, 2008

Iran would also probably have won more medals than it has if they didn't stupidly withdraw their best athletes from competition every time they have to go up against someone from Israel.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 12:01 PM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm going to say economics more than anything. Most of Africa is really, really poor. The Middle East is relatively rich, but that wealth is so concentrated that it just does not support the development of sports.

For the Middle East specifically, I suspect that apart from soccer, there isn't a huge interest in athletics like there is in other countries. For one thing, it's way too hot there for them to have developed a culture of outdoor sports the way that a lot of Europe and Asia have. Saudia Arabia, for example, hovers around 110 degrees F (45 C) in the summer. For another, it's just not that valuable. Again, aside from soccer, sponsorship of athletes is practically non-existent.

There's also a political aspect. Some countries have decided that they want to have medals to show that they are important world particpants. So they put the money into it. The United States, Russia, and China all put a lot of effort into winning medals, particularly during the Cold War. So they have a tradition of competing, which helps in future games.

On preview: Political corruption may also play a part, but it's more like: "Because of political corruption, there is no functioning middle class" rather than "Because of political corruption, only the Shiekh's friends can go to the games". Without a stable middle class economy that can support budding athletes, the only people who will have the opportunity to go will be the rich (not to mention that the majority of Egyptians don't receive adequate nutrition and health care, so it's doubtful that many of them would be physically capable of achieving Olympic-grade athletic abilities).

Australians kind of have a reputation for being outdoorsy folk, and if you notice they have one gold medal for every 2 million people, compared with the US's one for every 5 or so. I also seem to recall they're the only ones in the world who work comparable hours to the US. So it's possible that a will to compete may play a role as well.
posted by Deathalicious at 12:01 PM on August 18, 2008

Countries aren't going to produce solid athletics when a large portion of their people are worried about where their next meal is coming from, or what ethnic group is being cleansed this week... Duh.
The problem with that is that various South Asian countries do consistently produce world-class cricket players. So it's not a lack of "solid athletics." It's a lack of success in Olympic sports.

South Asian countries have traditionally done really well in Olympic men's field hockey, but wikipedia suggests that the switch to astro-turf has hurt them. Otherwise, mr_roboto's cricket suggestion is a good one. The sports culture in South Asia just isn't geared towards sports that are in the Olympics.
posted by craichead at 12:06 PM on August 18, 2008

In large part, simple economics -- high level sports requires a lot of money: to weed out (in youth programs), condition and equip young athletes, and fly them around the world attending regional, national, and world-class competitions (and the Olympics).

In many Western countries, well-funded public and private schools provide the initial training and weeding out, and advanced athletes are equipped and provided free time for training and competing by dedicated middle- and upper-middle class families who sacrifice for them, perhaps with the sponsoring assistance of corporate money. In more autocratic societies (former Soviet Union, PRC) the state devotes significant resources to finding and training the best athletes for the greater glory of the state.

Poorer (or politically unstable) countries don't have the educational resources or infrastructure to provide intensive training for young athletes, poor families don't have the resources to take up any of the slack, and corporations have no incentive to provide sponsorships when few can afford the luxury items being promoted.
posted by aught at 12:07 PM on August 18, 2008

I dont buy the "missing middle class" argument. All those gold-wining communist countries had no middle class or a very, very small middle class. The formula for winning is either state-down mandate to produce winners (E. Germary, USSR, China) or a big rich country with lots of opportunity and sponsorship. The middle east nations never went democracy/capitalism or totalitarian/communist. They traditionally went totalitarian/feudal with no real interest in winning western competitions like the Olympics, especially if it means it could lead to a call for women's rights.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:15 PM on August 18, 2008

I dont buy the "missing middle class" argument. All those gold-wining communist countries had no middle class or a very, very small middle class.

Plus, there are more people in the middle class in India than there are total people in most other countries.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:18 PM on August 18, 2008

I remember a great joke I think I got off of comedy central back in the 90's. Some British male comedian. I think it's just relevant, but i'm not trying to make some grand statement with it. To paraphrase heavily:"

Britain has the Commonwealth games. Have you been watching those? It's like the olympics but it's only against countries that were formerly in the British empire. So it's actually a handicap. See what happens is, 200 years ago Britain goes into all these countries, smashes them up, gives everyone V.D., subjects them to two centuries of starvation and malnutrition......then we see if we can beat them at athletics... They shouldn't even call it the commonwealth games, they should call it the 'all-the-wealth-is-over-here, thanks-for-providing-it games."
posted by cashman at 12:19 PM on August 18, 2008

While it is not necessary to have a large middle class, it certainly is a significant factor at the top end of the scale. Not the most important factor, just a significant one.

Take for instance China, which has always had a good showing at the Olympics in recent history. But this year will be the first one when they win more gold than the US. It's not a coincidence that they have recently grown a middle class that is largest in the world. And it's not just because the Olympics happen to be in Beijing this year. Watch the next few Olympics, China will be dominating for decades.
posted by parallax7d at 12:24 PM on August 18, 2008

Economics and/or the lack of an institutionalized system for training potential athletes. Remember, too, that it's not uncommon for athletes from the smaller nations to actually go to the big nations to live and train.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:35 PM on August 18, 2008

My best guess for India:
1) A huge number of people living below the poverty line and more concerned about where to get their daily bread from than winning games.
2) Lack of institutional support and financial incentives for athletes, except in cricket. This is a big difference between China and India where the government seems to have consciously rewarded athletes for good performance. In contrast, athletes in India seem to receive little to no recognition from the government, let alone monetary help, until they somehow win a major international competition, upon which they become the media's darlings for about five days or until the next big cricket match. This means that the only people with any chance of competing seriously at an international level are those of independent means. For example, India's sole gold medal at the Beijing Games (and in fact, only individual gold ever) was won in shooting by Abhinav Bindra who is independently wealthy (in fact, Bindra's father boasted of the young Abhinav practising shooting by hitting targets placed on a maid's head, which just makes me shake my head in disgust).
3) Siphoning of all resources and attention into cricket -- I touched upon this in the previous point but the level of obsession with cricket in India, to the exclusion of all other other sports, needs to be seen to be believed.
4) Academics and not sports are seen as the only possible route to financial stability. Perhaps because of the poor support for sports from the government, even middle class families with the resources to support their children in athletic endeavors push children to perform well in academics rather than sports. Combine this with rigorous nationwide examinations in the 10th and 12th grades, not to speak of the countless entrance examinations for colleges, and sports are often the first thing to be cut out of the schedule. In my personal experience, I swam at the state level and won a few medals in swimming, before I decided that there simply wasn't time to both put in hours of swimming each day and prepare for my examinations. Most of my friends likewise gave up their karate or tennis or music lessons during the last two years of high school when academic pressures simply became impossible.
posted by peacheater at 1:17 PM on August 18, 2008

I asked this question specifically about India about two years ago on my blog, and have since received sundry thoughtful (and not so thoughtful) responses. The reasons are all over the place--very 'unathletic builds' to the caste system. You may want to check it.
posted by dbarefoot at 2:14 PM on August 18, 2008

This 3QD post links to some discussion specifically about India's performance at the Olympics, and seemingly assigns the blame to lack of social mobility and the consequent lack of opportunity for participation for large chunks of the population. The main reference is behind a registration wall, so I'm not sure how detailed and/or convincing it is, but their point is summarised in the Guardian as follows:

Controversially, the paper contends that social mobility is the key to countries' success at the Olympics.

The [authors] accept economic size wields a major influence over how well a nation does at the Olympics. Economists have long argued that richer countries have substantial advantages in international athletics: enough leisure time for people to participate in sports, good facilities, and a system of rewards for athletes.

However, the academics say that Cuba, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Kenya and Uzbekistan are countries "not known for having high average incomes [and] have won many more medals than India."

posted by Jakey at 2:52 PM on August 18, 2008

The problem with that is that various South Asian countries do consistently produce world-class cricket players. So it's not a lack of "solid athletics." It's a lack of success in Olympic sports.

If a sport isn't popular, skilled people may never discover their skill.

I may be a natural at American Football; I wouldn't know, as I have never played - it's not popular in my country. You may be a natural at curling - would you ever know?

Furthermore, if a sport isn't popular there won't be as much political support for investing resources in facilities for it.

Also, consider the 100 meters, in which the entire final lineup was black. If the current genetics of your country are not predisposed to performance in a given sport, you have to rely on immigrants. Not all countries have high immigration rates, or necessarily attract sport-predisposed immigrants.

To put it another way, I get more google hits for "african-american" than "african-indian".
posted by Mike1024 at 2:59 PM on August 18, 2008

Countries aren't going to produce solid athletics when a large portion of their people are worried about where their next meal is coming from, or what ethnic group is being cleansed this week... Duh.

Sweden, Finland, and Austria have three medals each. Cuba and Belarus have 11 each. North Korea and New Zealand are tied with six each. If anything, it's interesting that some of the wealthiest and poorest countries exist side-by-side at all levels of achievement.

The countries that excel at the Olympics have decided to invest significant institutional time & money into doing so. The reasons for this, however, I think are quite complex beyond economic status and stability. Among high-income countries, Belgium and Ireland aren't even on the list, and Singapore and Portugal are at the bottom; these countries certainly have the infrastructure, wealth, and stability to produce Olympic-caliber athletes.
posted by desuetude at 5:34 PM on August 18, 2008

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